To Them, No. 28 Always Will Lead

Before going for a Sunday drive in a dead man's car, Robby Gordon bowed his head to listen to a widow's prayer. Mechanics and drivers stood at rigid attention along pit row, diverting their eyes from Liz Allison as she stepped forward to squeeze both hands of a retired Baptist minister, no more than a hundred yards from her husband's car, no more than another hundred yards from the spot where he was killed.

Speaking into a microphone, loudly enough to be heard in a backstretch grandstand a half-mile beyond, the Rev. Hal Marchman cupped her trembling hands and said: "Liz, we know this is a difficult time for you, but we sure are glad you're here."

An eerie stillness descended from the overpopulated bleachers to the vacant infield garages of the Talladega superspeedway, all conversations interrupted, all engines silent. Off to one side were Liz Allison's 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, cradled by Carrie Smith and Bonnie Farr, her sisters-in-law. The women dabbed away the perspiration of a 90-degree day and the teardrops for their brother that trickled down their cheeks.

"The last two weeks have been really difficult for Robbie, Krista and myself, and the whole Allison family," Liz said, looking at her children. "There have been times when we felt that we couldn't go on. But the love and the support that all of the fans have shown to us have been just overwhelming. There's no way we can ever thank each and every one of you for that love.

"Davey's looking down on us today with a big smile on his face for all the love you've shown. These are the things that will help Robbie and Krista know how very special their daddy was to so many people. There's something I would like to share with all of you today that has brought some peace to me, and I hope it will to you."

Robby Gordon raised his head to survey the scene around him. He was 2,000 miles from his home in Orange and until a few days before had never even set foot on these grounds. He is 24 and much of this was new to him. In a minute he would steer Davey Allison's gleaming black Ford Thunderbird out onto a 2.66-mile, tri-oval, high-banked, very fast and very dangerous track and race it for the first time in his life.

He heard Liz Allison recite:

"Please don't sing sad songs for me/ Forget your grief and fears/For I am in a perfect place/Away from pain and tears. I'm far away from hunger/And hurt and want and pride/I have a place in Heaven/with the Master at my side./

"My life on Earth was very good/as earthly lives can go/but Paradise is so much more/Than anyone can know./My heart is filled with happiness/And sweet rejoicing, too/To walk with God is perfect peace/A joy forever new."

A recording by the group Alabama was piped into the public-address system. A black Thunderbird, an exact duplicate of Davey Allison's stock car right down to the numeral 28 along the side, rolled through the Talladega infield and onto the track. The song was a tribute to audiences everywhere called "The Fan," and a spokesman for Alabama said the group originally had intended to appear here in person, but "just didn't feel like we could get through it." Behind the wheel of the car was former Winston Cup driver Donnie Allison, Davey's uncle.

He took a lap, by himself, to no other sound but the song.

Then he pulled back into the infield, passing a few feet from the spot where, on July 12, the helicopter piloted by his nephew had crashed.

A voice, the Rev. Marchman's, broke the silence. He said: "OK. I can almost hear Davey saying: 'That's enough! Get on with the race!' So, all you fans have fun now, and God bless you."

Robby Gordon donned his helmet. He climbed into Davey Allison's car.


The Iceberg Restaurant, in downtown Hueytown, is festooned with photographs of a hometown boy in his colorful auto racing get-up, along a wood-paneled wall that the regulars call: ALLISON LANE. One of the waitresses, Cathie Cole, will always remember the way Davey Allison and his racing mentor and virtual second father, 61-year-old Charles (Red) Farmer, were making jokes, "cutting up," in their usual booth as they pestered her during the Monday noonday lunch rush to hurry up with their catfish filets.

They were late because Davey was going to fly his Hughes 369-HS helicopter over to Talladega, a quick 60-mile hop, to surprise another of NASCAR's new generation of speed-racers, David Bonnett, Neil's boy, and watch him test-run a new car. Red would tag along. He trusted Davey completely, not caring that the young pilot had received his certificate to fly helicopters only 12 months before. And although this chopper that Davey had purchased four weeks ago was 20 years old and had no shoulder harness, Davey wore no helmet, none being legally required. Yet Red nonetheless felt confident with Davey in anything with a motor.

Trustworthy. It was a quality everyone seemed to admire in Davey Allison. One of his Hueytown high school classmates was Randy Hill, who later worked as part of a pit crew that was called the "Peach Fuzz Gang" by the older guys who teased Davey and his friends at their inability to grow full beards. Shaking his head, still in mourning, Hill recalls a 16th birthday celebration when Davey, being jostled by the others in the car, ran off the road and rammed a mailbox near a curb.

"Go! Go!" Hill and the others screamed in panic. But Davey pulled over, got out and knocked on the door of a neighbor, telling him he would return later to repair or replace the damaged mailbox.

Hill said: "We went to Florida once for some fun and some sun and you know the first thing Davey did? He found a phone book so he could find a church he could go to on Sunday."

The Allisons are an auto-racing royal family known and admired throughout Alabama as church-going, God-fearing people blessed with skill and cursed by fate. The popularity of the Allison fathers, sons and grandsons who indulged in the South's most popular sport is surpassed only by the tremendous sympathy felt for Kittie Allison, 86, the family matriarch who has seen so many of her clan killed and maimed. Her own sons, Bobby and Donnie, had brushes with death in horrifying crashes. Bobby, 55, barely survived the 1988 brain injury that ended his career. Donnie, 53, raced little after a terrible crash seven years before.

Then, in a continuing American tragedy likened by many to the Kennedy family of politics, the lives of both of Bobby Allison's sons, "Miz" Kittie's adored grandsons, were lost within the space of 11 months. Family members were still recovering from the practice-lap fatality at Michigan International Speedway that took the life of Clifford Allison, 27, when the copter crash claimed his older, more successful and wildly popular brother.

In almost desperate attempts to put a hopeful spin on their grief, there have been dozens of condolences uttered by friends of the family such as NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip, who said: "There's one person who's definitely happy that this happened and that's Clifford, because now he's with his brother again."

The mourning has gone on for nearly two weeks. To some in other parts of the country, an auto racer died, but the impact of Davey Allison's death here in Alabama has rivaled that of a fallen statesman or an Elvis Presley in unrelenting intensity. Floral arrangements still blanket the graveside at Highland Memorial Gardens in Bessemer, Ala., where country singer Joe Diffie sang "Ships That Don't Come In," Davey's favorite song, at a funeral attended by thousands.

On the highways, cars by the hundreds have "28" painted on their sides. An editorial in a Bessemer newspaper advised parents on how to help children cope with their grief over Davey's death. Letters and cards flood in to the Allison family, and poems, reams of poems, mostly inspirational and addressed directly to Davey, like one from a Donna McDaniel, who wrote: "Thanks for the memories you left us to hold, until we get there to see you race on the track of gold."

At a souvenir trailer he manages at the Talladega track, Danny Barrett wasn't prepared for the crowd he encountered upon opening at 9 a.m., or for the "opportunists" who he finally cut off after watching them buy up items such as a one-24th scale model Revell car for $15, only to resell it later for twice that.

Barrett said: "It's disgusting. They just want to buy a piece of Davey. It's the biggest sale I've ever seen, and I can't get excited."

Davey crashed on a Monday and never regained consciousness, dying on Tuesday. By Wednesday, songwriter Chris Baxter from Pell City already had written and recorded a tribute to Davey that received airplay on statewide radio stations, including Alabama 100, where music director Mike Carter said: "It's phenomenal. Sometimes the requests get so heavy, we repeat it every two hours."

The tributes mounted. Texaco took out full-page ads, to salute: "One of the finest young men we ever knew." The driver's Aunt Penny wrote an essay that covered everything from her baby-sitting experiences with Davey and Clifford to their habit of "going potty in the bathtub." Pulling into Talladega in a trailer bearing a bedsheet, In Loving Memory of Our Davey, a still-emotional Mary Kittrell of Daytona Beach, Fla., said: "I've been crying and taking nerve pills for a week. That was my baby."

The first concession stand off Interstate 20, along Speedway Boulevard, is a helicopter ride. For $20, Missy and Howard Foshee will take passengers above the race track and point out the place where Davey Allison's copter crashed.

Few have seen such an outpouring of grief. One funeral mourner, Susan Carswell of Lilburn, Ga., compared it to the deaths of football coach Bear Bryant and the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd in its impact on Southerners and said she owned a life-sized cardboard cutout of Davey that occupies a corner of her den. "I just might be buried with it," she said.

Such a polite boy. Called everybody "mister" or "ma'am." Such a pleasant boy. Had a smile and time for everybody. This was Allison's legacy. He was the imp who sneaked up behind race-car inspectors on all fours and grabbed them around the knee, who made croaking noises to startle a funny paint-and-body man, Grady Humphrey, who for some reason had a deathly fear of frogs.

Red Farmer's eyes moisten even as he reminisces for what must be the hundredth time.

"You never sat in the front seat of a car and let Davey sit in back if you was ticklish," Farmer said. "He'd get you."

Davey's whole life was cars. It was the family business. Almost exactly a year before his death, Davey had been in a car that flipped 11 times at Pocono and left him with a broken right arm and collarbone. All he had ever longed to do was race; childhood had prepared him for little else. But there was so much sadness in the sport, even more after the death last April of 1992 Winston Cup driving champion Alan Kuwicki, who crashed in a private plane on his way to a race.

Davey lost control of his helicopter inches from the ground. It oscillated and rose 25 to 30 feet, spun wildly and descended. Red Farmer braced himself. The tail rotor of craft struck an eight-foot fence near the garages in the Talladega parking lot. Davey struck his head and blacked out.

An emergency medical technician, Ursula Smith, witnessed the crash from 15 feet away. "At first I was in shock. Then my training kicked in," she said. Smith rushed to the copter and helped cut Allison free. Farmer crawled out of the wreckage. Smith had a hard time separating her feelings from her job: "I've known Davey since he was a baby. He's like my baby."

Unconscious and bleeding from the head, Allison was rushed to a trackside hospital 100 yards away until a helicopter from Carraway Methodist Medical Center could arrive. He had an acute subdural hematoma as well as a broken pelvis and punctured lung. Neil Bonnett, whose son Davey had come to see, ran to the helicopter and rode with Allison and Farmer to the hospital.

Allison, 32, was pronounced dead the next morning. All of the victim's organs were donated for other use. That afternoon, a Georgia heart patient who had been waiting 51 days for a new heart received one, saving his life. Hospital and family declined to acknowledge who had been the donor.

Law enforcement officials said nearly 5,000 arrived in Bessemer for the funeral. Hotels throughout Hueytown sold out within 5% of capacity. Dabb's Florist put on five extra workers to handle 250 to 300 orders, then stayed afterward themselves to do an arrangement that resembled Allison's race car.

At the Iceberg restaurant, Cathie Cole said: "Davey Allison wasn't our customer. He was like our family."

The restaurant took out an ad in the local paper that read: "We don't consider you gone . . . just a lap ahead."

The black Thunderbird was still at Talladega, Davey's home track.

It needed a driver.


Dragonflies fluttered above grass parched brown by the heat and flattened by oversized tires. The heat was such Sunday that sunglasses needed windshield wipers and T-shirts had to be squeezed dry as through a laundry's wringer. Even for a Californian, the oven-like 73% humidity was getting to Robby Gordon. It was summertime in Alabama.

Before a race named, almost grotesquely, the DieHard 500, other drivers in the field tried to put the driver of car No. 28 out of their mind. Some couldn't. Jimmy Spencer, who races for Bobby Allison's team, frowned and said: "It's just another Winston Cup race. We could win the next 10 in a row and it's not going to bring Davey back."

Also grieving was Neil Bonnett, who said: "I think, 'God, if I hadn't told him to come (see Neil's son), Davey would still be here.' "

Robert Yates, the owner of the car, wished Gordon well and shoved him off. It was he who had searched for a replacement driver under awkward circumstances, who racked his brain trying to decide what behavior would be proper and which driver would be capable and convenient.

Yates' crew had skipped the previous week's race at Pocono because, he said: "We couldn't work with tears in our eyes." That race was won by Dale Earnhardt, who immediately picked up a No. 28 flag and circled the Pocono track, waving it.

A call went to Gordon, an Indy Car driver with virtually no NASCAR experience. "I don't think he (Yates) could have picked a better driver," competing owner Junie Donlavey said. "Gordon is a fearless driver with more talent than he can use. If he decides to go racing in Winston Cup, he'll be the best."

But Gordon had veterans laughing and shaking their heads at how green he was. Another peach-fuzz kid. "I'm going to get a rule book that I'll take home and read," Gordon said upon arriving at Talladega. "I learned a lot last night at dinner."

Friday's qualifying was Gordon's first time on the track. He ran Allison's car at 190.613 m.p.h., placing him in 14th position for Sunday's race, and said afterward: "This just shows how good this race team is. Even through a situation like this, they can still prepare a darn good race car."

The crowd's reaction concerned him. But cheers awaited his first turn around the track.

On the 57th lap, a wall awaited.

Coming through the tri-oval, Gordon kissed the retaining wall just beyond the start-finish line, spun out and smashed back into it.

Spectators watched in disbelief. Nothing moved. Not the car. Not the driver. Not for nearly two minutes.

But Gordon, unhurt, simply was waiting for traffic to ease. He eased the car back into the pits.

The car was done for the day. It was the first one knocked out.

"It happened so quick!" Gordon said later. "I was just riding along, under control, when boom! I guess it's just going to take a little time for me to learn. I'm just going to have to keep trying, but I hope I didn't wear out my welcome here."

Yates inspected the damage.

He was glad it raced, the owner of car No. 28 said. "We've all got to support our families. That's the real world. We're still here. We've got to take care of ourselves first."

He ran a hand over the car. It looked OK.

A sticker on the back read: "Davey--Our Teammate Forever."

Yates looked at it and said: "He always was and he always will be."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World